Public not private: how to lose £1,000 in 140 characters

Paul Chambers: fined £1,000 for single tweetAh, Twitter. To some, it’s the best way of keeping abreast of the latest developments round the world; to others, it’s a nuisance site filled with reprobates with too much free time on their hands. Whichever way you think of it, it is certainly popular, with around 19% of US internet users logging into the service to share updates about themselves and to catch up on news from friends and celebrities.

Pity, then, poor Paul Chambers, whose innocent tweet about his frustrations with the Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire, UK, has led to a guilty verdict and a £385 fine, a £15 victims surcharge and £600 in court costs, not to mention the loss of his job. So what did Chambers do to be branded a potential terrorist and invoke a fine that would put most petty criminal punishments to shame?

Paul Chambers: the airport bomber

A court of law found Chambers guilty of sending a message to the Robin Hood airport “of a menacing nature in the context of the times we live in”. What Chambers actually wrote was, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”.

Not the most sensible of messages, certainly. Given the state of high emergency that our airports have been in since 2001, not the most politically correct message either. However, was Chambers a terrorist? Obviously not. Did Chambers deserve to be treated as a potential terrorist? Definitely not.

On the other hand, no one likes being threatened, which is why Chambers can possibly be called a bit of an idiot – although idiocy doesn’t usually carry a £1,000 price tag.

Putting the ‘social’ in social media

Even though Chambers didn’t specifically send the tweet to the airport – it contained no @ identifiers or hashtags – it’s difficult to defend Chambers’ case. He was frustrated, he was venting and he overstepped the mark – something that Chambers himself admits in an impassioned and well-reasoned look at the implications for UK civil liberties. If nothing else, we should take away the same lesson that businesses have been learning for a while: that Twitter is a public, social space.

Everyone has said something stupid, tactless or potentially offensive at some point in their life, but sites such as Twitter mean that such remarks are being made in the public domain: in cases such as this, they can be the equivalent of simply strutting up to someone and yelling in their face.

We’ve all heard stories of people saying the wrong thing on the internet and being lambasted or punished for it, but regardless of whether one agrees with the verdict, the Chambers case serves to reinforce one simple fact: social media is not a private journal or a way of staying anonymous. It is public, it is monitored, and it serves to watch what you’re saying.